Dark Roads And Distant Lights

NoirFloridaRoad

So much of Florida is simply and without question, beautiful.  The beaches come to mind.  The wetlands of the Everglades are near the top of the list.  The seemingly endless forests of the Ocala National Forest are a reminder of what Florida once looked like before Disney, Developers and Big Sugar got their hands on so much of the natural and unique beauty.

But, there’s a dark side as well.  This witching hour come at dusk, when the shadows lengthen and the details of the roadside becomes dim and indistinct.

I drove north, through The Villages, where we visited a friend, Nancy, who grew up a few blocks from where I did in Owego, NY.  I drove north, on roads that paralleled I-75.  We grazed Ocala.  We drove toward an RV park in Fort McCoy, near the middle of the state.

This was not Sanibel or Captiva Island.  This was a strange and unfamiliar country that got slightly more menacing as we sought our campground.

The roadsides lost a familiar clarity.  The houses looked a bit more run-down, some had sad Christmas lights still blinking in their yards.  Every mile or two, a gate at the head of a driveway, or a house, flew the Confederate flag.

I wanted to get settled in our site.  I wanted to collapse on the bed and play a few Scrabble games.  I wanted to nibble on a few vegetables and a cracker or two with a slice or two of Irish Cheddar.

Instead we drove along what seemed to be an endless road.  Our GPS was giving us contradictory commands.  My own confidence at map-reading began to falter.  Were we lost?  Did we miss a turn?

What about gas?  I hadn’t seen a station in what seemed like hours.  When you’re in an unfamiliar landscape, time can stretch and become distorted.

We finally located our RV park.  I don’t like to hear Interstate traffic when we camp…that would most definitely NOT be the case here.  There was no traffic noise at all.

A security guard was supposed to meet us at the gate-house and check us in.  There was no one there.  We followed the directions to check ourselves in.

We were listed for Site #50.  I was distracted by another RV in the exit lane.  The guy seemed upset:

“They knew we had to leave early.  I’m locked in!”

Indeed, there was a cable across the exit drive.  I went out to help him.  His RV was larger than mine.  He was traveling with a blonde that I could barely see through the smoked glass of the passenger side.  I helped him unhook the cable and I pulled the orange traffic cone to one side.  He drove off.

Now, when I hear someone express interest in leaving “early” I think that they mean 6:30 am.  But, it was 7:45 pm!

Why was this guy leaving at this hour?  Where was he going?  Where was he going to spend the night, which had already started?

“Is there something going on here?” I asked myself.

The security guard drove up.  I told him we were heading to Site #50, but I couldn’t make out anything more than a small dirt road.

“I need some direction to #50,” I said.

“Oh, you won’t like #50,” he said.  “There a ditch in the middle of it.  Take #22.  You’ll like it better.”

We took Site #22 and we did like it.

A few campers had fires.  People laughed in the darkness.  I settled in and felt hungry only for a few veggies and a piece of cheese.  I made a few plays on Scrabble but found the WiFi signal weak and uneven.  I gave up.  Mariam wanted a bottle of cold water, so I slipped on my shoes and went to the ice cooler in the car.  The moon, full only a few days ago (on Christmas Night), was Waning Gibbous.  Orion was bright and directly over my head.  It was a cool and pleasant night

I stood in the large mown yard and looked at the moon.  In a few hours it would be December 31.  I thought of my days in Florida, my sailing, my new friends and my new experiences.

I thought about my family.  Brian in New York City, Erin, in Washington State.  My grandson on Erin’s knee reaching for his dad, Bob.  I thought of my faithful readers of this blog.

And, as lonely as I feel at this moment, here in the middle of somewhere in Central Florida, that I wanted to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

So, Happy New Year.  I love y’all.

SpanishMossTree

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To Let: Site # 143/ A Farewell To The Sunshine State

Site#143

[As I write this post, Site #143 is occupied]

On December 30, 2015, around noon, the radio in our red Ford Escape will begin to emit static.  It will crackle and hiss as my favorite country music station fades in strength.  Fort Myers will be receding, falling away into the south…into the muggy soupy haze.  The traffic on I-75 will be roaring past us.  The final songs are playing.  I hear the lines:

“Lookin’ in every trailer park for her red pick-up truck…”

and,

“If you’re gonna cheat on me, don’t cheat in our hometown…”

then,

“There’s a tiger inside of those tight fittin’ jeans…”

I think I hear,

“Tell it like it used to be, when you were still in love with me, before you got so used to me, and wanted someone new…”

Wait, a signal burst from the station,

“Billy gave up his wife and children…just to satisfy your 14 carat mind.”

and, just as the faint sounds of the best country music station in Florida fades into the ionosphere,

“You never called me ‘darlin’, darlin’…you never even called me by my name.”

“Before you got so used to me…”  It’s not that we are “used” to Florida, its just that the calendar will turn over in a few dozen hours to 2016 and we have places to see.  Former sharecroppers shacks in the southern cotton and soy bean fields and places in the western deserts.  We’re trading the Royal Palm trees for the Saguaro.  If you open your Rand McNally and look at the U.S. map, we will be riding along the belly of this great and varied country.  Landscapes will change…but the heart of this traveler will be setting a course toward the sunsets.

Our days and nights in Florida are at an end.  A night in Fort McCoy, another in Tallahassee and then we begin making our way through the heart of the deep south.  Mobile, Natchez and Vicksburg.  There are campsites waiting for us.  I have important personal business in Monroe, Louisiana…I hope it’s not hot and glaring in the sun when I sit beside that headstone in the cemetery in Monroe.  Then Shreveport and onto Dallas.  Mariam will fly back to New York City for several days of business-related meetings.  I’ll stay back…back in Texas where I will plug away on my novel.  I’ll sleep alone in the Lone Star state.  How much trouble can I get into while scribbling away in Arlington.

What are we leaving behind us?  So many things, mostly pleasant and a few not so.  The heat and humidity, unusual this year, will not be missed by me.  (But, I do enjoy going outside without wearing fleece.)

BigCypressNWR

[Big Cypress Wildlife Refuge]

We’re leaving our friends in Jupiter, Brad and Linda, who were so gracious a few weekends ago on the Atlantic coast.

We’re leaving my high school classmate, Katy (and her husband) who prepared a wonderful lunch for us in Zephyrhills.  Katy is my proof-reader.  We’re leaving my teaching colleague, Dianna (and her husband) who showed us the sunny side of St. Petersburg.  Dianna is a transplanted Connecticut yankee.  Good luck in the Florida heat, Dianna.  Teach those children well.

We’re leaving the sublime beauty and stark nature of the Big Cypress and Everglades Parks.

SawGrass

[Sawgrass]

The malls, the walls, the sand and the alligators.  The seashells of Sanibel.  The sunsets over the Gulf.  My learning to sail with Russell and sailing teacher, Randen.

MeSailingDay2

I will miss the Bike Bistro, where I bought a mug and had Mariam’s broken spokes repaired. (The free ball-point pens were orange-colored).  Farewell to Paulette and Emily who provided me with the best iced coffee on the hottest of days. They were more than baristas, they became my friends.

MeJava2

Java2

[Paulette (left) is a gifted artist & Emily (right) has a dog-siting business. They are the top two baristas in Fort Myers]

Gone will be the pink flamingo yard ornaments, adult tricycles, golf carts and circling Turkey Vultures.

Flamingos

Out of my life, like a cool breeze on a hot day, will pass the best public libraries this side of 42nd Street.

I will no longer drive along San Carlos Boulevard and tip my cap at the strippers who are all standing in front of Fantasy’s, waving to the passers-by.

New adventures are awaiting us on the roads to the West.

If you’ve read between the lines of my posts, you may have noticed that this writer is a restless soul.  I feel unspeakably lonely sometimes, even when Mariam and friends are near.  It’s my dark side.  My nightly companion is a melancholy that can’t be described easily.  Have you ever dreaded something and welcomed that thing in equal portions?  Love and hate.  Approach and avoidance.  The beautiful and the obscene.  The sacred and the profane.

Clearly, almost certainly, it’s the air sign of mine.  Gemini.  The twins.  Perhaps that explains my dual nature.

But, I think I can be fixed, like an old Chevy with faded paint that’s not running on all cylinders.  Yes, I think I’ve found the place that could be my Fountain of Youth.  I stumbled on this ghost town while googling the Mohave Desert.  I’ve never been there, but I know it exists.  It will be an unusual place and it bears the oddest of names.  It’s in the California desert.  It’s alongside the dunes and sage and cacti of the Southwest.  I’m not going to tell you (yet) where this place is located.  You will need to stay in touch.

Keep reading my posts.  I have so much more to share.

Good-bye Site #143.  It’s been a great two months.  Perhaps we can do this again sometime.  I’ll buy the wine and pay for the room if you sing that song I love…

Moon&Palm

Christmas, 2015

blizzard

On a Christmas Day, we were mushing our way over the Dawson Trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold, it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

     –Robert Service “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

Wait! Wait a minute!  I lost my place in the book.  Oh, here we are:

On a Christmas Day, we were sitting on a beach on sunny Sanibel Island…

MeBeach

Holiday Lights On Holiday Nights: A Visit To The Edison/Ford Estates

BanyanTree:edison

[The Banyan tree with a bronze of Edison standing guard]

We arrived about thirty-five minutes before sunset.  Heading for the admission window, we passed the largest Banyan tree in Florida.  There was a family on the path in front of us.  I heard the mother:

“Isn’t that amazing that this is one tree?”

“Not really,” said the sulky teenage daughter.

Teenagers…

We walked past the tree and I nearly stumbled over four people.  My attention was directed at this tree, this 3/4 acre tree, this alien-like plant that looked like it came from a moon that orbits a planet we haven’t found yet, this wonder of God and Nature.  It’s hard to put words on paper that would accurately describe the feeling I had when I looked at this tree.  The longer I stared, the more I saw…and felt.  If the Nymphs, the Dryads, or the Lauma live, they live in the Banyan.  To say that it “blew me away” sounds trite and immature.

And, the Banyan trees walk!

We’re down to nine days before we depart Fort Myers.

“Let’s go see the Holiday Nights at the Edison/Ford estates,” I said to Mariam.

“Ok.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and other extremely wealthy shakers and movers of industry, had winter homes here in Fort Myers.  These estates have been lovingly and intelligently restored and it is possible to stroll among the gardens and pools and ‘cottages’ that spoke of a time in the past when a heated swimming pool was a rarity.

Me&Mina

[Mina Edison and me.]

Henry Ford made cars, in case you haven’t heard.  I drive a red Ford.  Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  But he was also intrigued by botany.  He planted the Banyan tree in 1927 as an experiment.  He was looking for a material that could be a cheaper method to produce rubber.  No wonder Ford and Firestone wanted to hang out with the guy.

ClusterFigTree

[A Cluster Fig]

We walked the paths and poked our heads into the dining rooms, libraries, kitchens and pantries of the Ford and Edison homes.

EdisonQuote

I bought two “Welcome To Florida” postcards, done in the old style of the 1940’s.

We left the parking lot and drove down McGregor Boulevard, keeping an eye out for a nice restaurant.  I thought about the teenage girl and wonder if anything she had seen that night impressed her.

Maybe the 1,200+ patents that these two men held?  Maybe the thousands of lights on the palm trees?  Maybe the museum with a working model of a Model T (or was it an A)?  Maybe the dolls that were on display in one of the family rooms?

Maybe nothing impressed her.

Me, I pushed the button on the radio of my Ford Escape and began to listen to my favorite country music station.

We were just approaching the restaurant on McGregor when I heard another memorable song:

“Prop me up beside the juke box if I die.”

This guy’s main concern about death was that he had a stiff (no pun intended) drink in his hand and was left against a juke box.

Now, that was impressive.

holiday nights 3

[Photo:Edison/Ford Estates Website]

 

The Lights On The Palm Trees

XmasPalm

A few minutes ago, I was driving along Summerlin Road to get to the Java Coffee Cafe before they closed.  I don’t normally drink an iced coffee at 6:10 pm on a Sunday night, or any night for that matter.  I really came here to use the stronger WiFi signal that the Outlet Mall provides for free.  You see, at our RV Resort (Siesta Bay), we have no signal at our site (#143).  The “strong signals” are either in the library or the breezeway, which is located near the showers and the pool, which is next to the Shuffleboard courts which are between the mail boxes and the tennis courts.

The library can get kind of lonely.  Only a few residents here are avid readers.  And, sitting in the breezeway will only get your ankles bit by tiny things that leave marks on human flesh.  And the signal isn’t that strong anyway.  So, here I am at the Outlet Mall.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a mooch.  I shop here.  Just yesterday, I purchased a light cotton pull-over at Tommy Hilfiger (the first time I’ve ever been in a Tommy store, I think) and the other day I bought a shirt at G.H.Bass & Co.  So, I’ve paid my dues.

But I digress.

I was driving along Summerlin listening to my favorite country radio station.  The song that was just finishing had the line:

“Somewhere tonight, he’s a live wire”

It was followed by:

“I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”

Just as I pulled into my parking spot, my current favorite song came on:

“I’m messed up in Mexico, living on refried dreams.”

Some songs will always be classics in the songbook of my life.

My point here is that between the country songs, and the mall background music, I have never heard more Christmas tunes in my life.  (I had to endure that dreaded Chipmunks song twice today.)

And that is a good thing.  I’m out of my element (the cold North Country) for the first time in recent memory.  For a New York Stater, this is alien territory.  I’ve written before about the juxtaposition of palms trees and sand with lights and Santa lawn ornaments.

But, here’s are my final thoughts on spending Christmas in the Sunshine State:  It’s rather nice.  I’m sitting outside the Java Cafe right now in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.

In the end, it doesn’t matter where you hang your tinsel, as long as there is love in your heart and you do something, anything, to let your cup of joy spill over, like a leaky dam, into the lives of those around you.

There are lonely, hungry and lost people all around you.  The users, the drifters, the two-time losers…they all need a little snowflake, real or plastic, in their lives.

Our time here in Southern Florida is running out.  We will drive away from Site #143 on the morning of December 30, for parts west.

Into the setting sun.

Away from the waves of the Gulf of Mexico.  Away from the alligators, the insects, the spectacular sunsets, the country songs, the Everglades.

I plan on posting a final farewell to Florida blog after Christmas.

Meantime, you don’t need me to remind you that it’s time to raise your glass to the Spirit of Christmas.  Have a Happy Holiday and…

Believe.

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-eighth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer.  It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.  It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or so feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

 

A Day For A Splash Of Rum

Sailing

The Ancient Mariner is home from his lonely voyage.  He’s waiting beside the tavern door to tell his tale.  The Old Man is back from the Sea…did he win the fight with the great fish?

The story of my journey to being a sailor is over…for now.  I have completed the final task which was to set sail into the Gulf of Mexico, without the instructor on board.  It was just Russell, the other student, and me.  It was up to us to go out and return without incident.  Experienced sailors will shrug at this, and I can not speak for Russell, but it was a large step for this novice, this beginner, this “mariner-to-be”.

The forecast called for rain and moderate winds.  As I was preparing the boat, an official looking man on the dock said:

“Keep your eye to the west.  There’s a front approaching and a strong possibility of lightning.”

We had been trained for “man overboard” drills, but nothing was ever said about lightning.  I looked around and saw only the small cabin as any protection from preventing me from acting as a lightening rod.

One strike from the gray clouds overhead would have put an end to my story rather quickly.

We motored out into the channel and followed the markers to the open water.  I kept my eyes on the darkening skies to the west.  Mariam was video-taping the departure.  As she fell from view when we turned, I regretted not telling her to drive out to the tip of the island and walk to the beach…walk to the beach and watch Russell and I raise the main sail, the jib and sail away.  No, she wouldn’t see me kill the motor and raise the sail into the wind for the first time, and let the wind take me.  There will be no photograph of that moment.  No video to show to a bored friend.  No tangible evidence that moment happened.  It will exist only in my own mind.  Russell will have his recollections, but only I will have that chance to see and feel that moment, again and again in my memory.  The instant I cut myself free from the land and became part of another world.

This was the moment I’ve been waiting for…sometimes with some anxiety, sometimes with excitement.

We headed up wind on a close haul.  We tacked.  We jibed.  We came about and relaxed…we talked.  I watched the sky grow darker to the west.  The blue sea turned to lime-green.  The wind eased.

The front moved slowly toward us.  It got darker…more ominous.

“I think we should think about heading back,” I suggested, still thinking about lightning.  “How do you feel about it?”

“I’m not one to enjoy sailing in a downpour,” said Russell.

We brought down the main sail and furled in the jib.

We motored back in a heavy rain.  I was soaked by the time we reached the mooring.  Mariam was there, safe and dry under her umbrella.

It was over.  We had completed our trip…a little shy of two hours.  Another instructor from Off Shore Sailing was on hand to help us put the boat back together with everything tied and secure.  She didn’t want to be out there in the rain.

“This is a day to be home and sipping a mug of tea…with a splash of rum in it,” she said.

Yes, this was a day for a dash of rum.